The building from "140 Drams"

Detroit Filmmaker Oksana Mirzoyan Tries to Heal Scars of Karabakh War


DETROIT — Great art often emerges from conflict, hardship, or pain. Oksana Mirzoyan has known these perhaps more than most. As a child refugee fleeing Baku in the late 1980s and again in the early 1990s due to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, she knows firsthand the world that war creates, both outside and inside of us. A perceptive and sensitive artist, she channels her inner and outer world, along with a good dose of inspiration from classical painting, into a body of artwork, film in her case, that could not be more relevant for Armenians, and all people, today.

Based in Metro Detroit where she grew up, Mirzoyan begun to make her mark for several years with her work being screened at film festivals internationally. Her short film, “140 Drams,” took top prize as Best Short Film at the Izmir Film Festival (Turkey), received an Emerging Cinematographer Award from the Cinematographers Guild of America, and was selected by Atom Egoyan for his curated selection: “Diaspora: Atom Egoyan and Armenia” at the Fribourg Film Festival (Switzerland).

Oksana Mirzoyan

Already well-known in the artistic circles of Detroit, as well as the local Armenian community here, she holds a Kresge Arts Fellowship, has had her films exhibited by the DIA (Detroit Institute of Arts, one of the most prestigious art museums in the country), and has had work commissioned by the MOCAD (Museum of Contemporary Art of Detroit). Her life and work inextricably tied up with the Karabakh conflict, she has now begun work on a feature-length film on the subject, to be titled “Absym.”

Mirzoyan was born in Baku, Soviet Azerbaijan. As a young child, her life changed forever. She was only four-years old in 1988 when “everything started to happen,” in her words. Karabakh voted for independence, which led to massacres that took place in Baku and Sumgait. The Soviet Union was crumbling. Her family, along with 500,000 other Armenians, fled Azerbaijan. It wasn’t a choice — it was a matter of survival.

“We fled and came to Yerevan. I have my memories, the images from that time, but more so I remember the feeling. I remember the tension. I was very young and at that age, you only understand the feeling of events. I’ve been trying to find the language around what happened since then.”

The Sumgait pogroms, as any Armenian knows, were not the only catastrophe in 1988.

Image from the film “Susanna”

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“We came to Yerevan 6 days before the earthquake happened. One of my earliest memories is that earthquake. Standing in the doorway of a bathroom in a Soviet apartment building. The tub full of water. They used to fill up the tubs because you never knew when the water would be shut off. And then suddenly, everything started to sway. And the water started to crash against the opposite wall. I will never forget it. After that, we knew we couldn’t stay. The country was dealing with refugees, a war and now a natural disaster. We fled again.”

Mirzoyan’s father went to Moscow to try to start a business there, so that the family could relocate. In a moment of levity, Mirzoyan shared that the business her father opened was a blue jeans factory. Everyone wanted blue jeans when the Soviet Union fell, I commented. “Everyone!” Mirzoyan replied, laughing. After her father started the blue jeans factory, “he was kidnapped for a few hours and held for ransom!” Mirzoyan told me, almost incredulous of the events of her own life, as she waved it off with her hand in a familiar Armenian gesture. As for growing up in Moscow around 1990-91, “It was waiting in bread lines, the end of the Soviet Union, but also the grandeur and beauty of Moscow too.”

She spoke of the highly impactful nature of painful childhood memories, in her case around the pogroms and the poverty of the immediate post-Soviet era: “People often dismiss a child’s memory.” In Mirzoyan’s words, parents will assume that “Oh, they’ll forget.” She brings up a quotation attributed to Franciscan monks: “You give me a boy at 4 and I’ll give you a man at 7.” She continues, telling me that this age bracket is a “crucial time for how you see the world. It gets locked into your system.” Mirzoyan strongly believes the seemingly indelible memories of this stage of life, become the lens through which one views life.

How did all of this affect her filmmaking artistry? “For a long time I was really confused as to what happened,” she says. “It’s when I started going to the front line of the conflict, in 2011 that something shifted. I sat with the soldiers and looked out over no-man’s-land and I saw what would be my feature.” [i.e. the feature film about the conflict, Abysm, that Mirzoyan is currently working on] “I didn’t understand why I kept going back to the front line to be with the soldiers and to sit with them and to photograph them and to talk to them… about death. I was very much obsessed with this idea, because I think as a child [refugee] I was always made aware of the fact that there [was] something after us. You’re always waiting for a catastrophe to happen, and you’re always in that state of … something could happen at any second, that will be the end. In Artsakh, on the front line, you always feel at any moment, the war will begin again. It was a familiar feeling.”

For Mirzoyan, in other words, the lens or filter through which she sees the world is in fact the Karabakh conflict, because it played such a pivotal role in her formative years. Indeed, in correlation with the Franciscan theory about childhood, her family first fled Baku when she was 4, and at the age of 7 her family finally made it to the United States. During that time, she experienced the conflict, massacres, and uprooting of the Armenian community of Azerbaijan.

When she made it to America, it wasn’t quite the “promised land” she had been expecting; though her family was granted asylum and sponsored by the Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit as Christian refugees, they were resettled in the enclave municipality of Hamtramck, an immigrant-dominated area entirely surrounded by the city of Detroit. “We landed in ’91,” Mirzoyan tells me, “and we had 50 dollars to our name. It’s such a crazy typical immigrant story. The 50 dollars was hidden in my shoe. Because we weren’t sure how much we can bring over, what was allowed. And Hamtramck and Detroit in ’91. You know it also went through its own war experience. I really felt like we had arrived in another war zone.”

The year the Mirzoyans arrived, 1991, was the year when crime rates in the already-notorious “murder capital” Detroit peaked — an era when one could strike fear and awe into the hearts of fellow travelers on an out of state trip merely by telling them “I’m from Detroit” (something that suburbanites up until then would still casually mention as a regional reference point). “Now I understand it because I studied it at university. Back then, I just saw decay. These huge abandoned structures, all those factories, in ruins. I spent a lot of time in my teenage years running around those space and taking time to watch nature taking back those structures. Reclaiming them.”

Still from “Baku 1977”

Mirzoyan also found challenges as well as blessings at the AGBU Manoogian School in Southfield, where her parents sent her during her elementary school years. “That was quite challenging…a lot of the students were…maybe not ‘well off’ but much more comfortable and much more secure than my family was during that time.”

Mirzoyan was comforted by the fact that there were other refugees from Baku who came at the same time and attended the school. Nevertheless, “My experience at the Armenian school was quite nurtured and I understand and appreciate my Armenian identity because of it… I loved Armenian history. This was my favorite class. And Digin Toumajan and Baron [Toumajan], oh my God, we were so fortunate to have the two of them. They were so amazing.” [Mr. and Mrs. Toumajan are longtime Armenian history and language teachers at the school]

One of the reasons that Baku Armenians felt isolated from the community was the fact that they spoke Russian and not Armenian. I mentioned this point and Mirzoyan replied “My mom did [speak Armenian], my father didn’t. My dad learned because he started working with an Armenian tailor from Lebanon who he really got along well with, and he taught him Western Armenian. And I understand Western too, because I went to AGBU. Western is easier to understand because the dialect, it doesn’t change. Eastern Armenian is…constantly evolving, because it’s lived, it’s spoken all the time.”

While Mirzoyan went to AGBU Manoogian when she was younger, she later attended Kimball High School in Royal Oak, which introduced her to the broader American experience: “I went to a public high school in Royal Oak, because at that point we had moved, and so I went to a super all-American high school and there I got the American experience…Led Zeppelin, and the Doors, and Dave Matthews…” It’s very rock’n’roll over in Royal Oak, I comment. “Exactly! It’s rock’n’roll, it’s bonfires with guys playing on the guitar, Stairway to Heaven, things like that,” Mirzoyan laughs.

Mirzoyan’s creative side was already budding while she was at Manoogian, and started to blossom during her high school years in Royal Oak: “I started writing plays when I was about 10-12 years old. I was acting in theatre from a young age. And then in high school we had a great program at Kimball. I had friends who were making films in high school and I started acting for them. Then I went to university for art history, and that gave me a really broad knowledge of what it means to…to look at images and to understand how to read images and sculptures, and movement, and composition, and lighting. All of my education came from there.”

The Female Gaze

Mirzoyan attended the University of Michigan — Dearborn where she majored in Art History. Classical Western art — especially Baroque-era painting, became her love, and her heroes included Van Gogh, Caravaggio, and Artemisia Gentileschi, a female Italian baroque-era painter very close to her heart. Gentileschi, though little known for many years, brought a woman’s touch to the world of painting. While the Baroque era followed the Renaissance in artistic openness, allowing for depictions of the naked female (and male) form, especially in mythological and Biblical paintings, much of this was depicted through the perspective of male painters. Gentileschi’s “female gaze” offered a different perspective that captivated Mirzoyan. Mirzoyan’s short film “Susanna” is actually based on the Gentileschi Painting “Susanna and the Elders.” In regard to the Baroque painters and Western Classical Art in general, Mirzoyan remarked: “They taught me how to speak in a visual language.”

Although having 17th-19th century painters as a role model rather than 20th century fellow filmmakers is a bit unusual for someone like Mirzoyan, she sticks to her guns. “I do love films. I constantly watch films and have a deep reference of them. But for me, painting will always be the foundation. Even if we don’t recognize it, we have, as humans, a deep subconscious knowledge when it comes to images that’s been shaped throughout centuries. It’s so important to understand that history. In my films, I’m speaking in a visual language. I’m speaking with those dream-like images which are going to evoke something visceral and primal in you. Hopefully primal.”

Mirzoyan worked her way through school, interestingly enough, as a spokesperson for Ford and Chrysler. She travelled around the country as one of the gracefully dressed young women who would demonstrate new cars at auto shows. “What I loved about it was that I got to travel all over the US and I would use the opportunity to go to museums and galleries. I’ve seen most of the museums in the US. It was a chance to take my art history education further.”

When Mirzoyan finished school, she had a decision to make. At first she thought she was going to be a professor, an art historian, or even enter the financial side of art — investment, auctions, etc. But, she says, “when I graduated I just missed making things so much, and I always felt like I wanted to go back to film, so then I moved to Italy for a few months.”

Spending time in the small city of Siena, which “lost the battle [with Florence] for who was going to be the city of the Renaissance,” in Mirzoyan’s words, she grappled with what for her was an important and life-changing decision: whether or not she wanted to seriously dedicate herself to filmmaking. “When I made this decision to go into this world I knew that I had a lot to live to up. Live up to those artists who I really loved and who taught me how to be true. And I knew in making this decision to become a writer-director there would be no turning back from it.” She adds that she felt she would have to “answer” artistically to her favorite directors and even to the artists of the past.

And so, Mirzoyan moved back to Detroit and began making films: “A short, and then another short, and then I moved to Armenia, and started living there, making films there.” Her time in Armenia, from 2011 to 2014 was crucial for her. She gained a better knowledge of what was going on in the homeland; she visited Artsakh and the front lines; she worked with humanitarian organizations. For her, the recent war has been painful to witness. Not only did it bring up her childhood memories, but she had friends that served on the front lines. “Just last year I went to Artsakh to teach a filmmaking workshop for five weeks with Tumo. And now one of my students is serving on the front line. I check every day to make sure his name is not on the list of soldiers who died.”

Mirzoyan was heavily involved in the nonprofit world while in Armenia. She helped start OneArmenia, a “global community of changemakers” who “collaborate with grassroots organizations to implement innovative projects that accelerate job creation in agriculture, tech, tourism, and made in Armenia products.” Mirzoyan helped see the organization through the first year of its creation. She has also worked with COAF (Children of Armenia Fund), with whom she did a six-month photography workshop in 2011, as well as numerous other organizations in Armenia, including accompanying the US Embassy on an archaeological dig, a favorite memory for her.

Since returning to the Detroit area, she has continued an artist’s life, dedicated to her craft. Mirzoyan’s films, including “Susanna,” “140 Drams” and “Sonnet,” are artistic, yet accessible. Some of her pieces are squarely in the realm of “art film,” others more mainstream-friendly, but all of them are challenging and make you think, without, for the most part, using jarring imagery often seen in avant-garde film. Assuming that one wants to view an artistic film and not standard-issue Hollywood material, the viewer is not shocked or made uncomfortable in the first moments of footage, as is the case with many art films. Instead Mirzoyan’s visual approach is captivating. Rather than the imagery causing one to feel uncomfortable, the subject matter, storyline, or message of the film challenges the viewer. In this way, the degree to which one accepts or rejects the film reflects the viewer more than it does the filmmaker.

When I told Mirzoyan that within the spectrum of art film, I found her work rather accessible, her (audibly pleased) response was: “I don’t want to make people feel excluded from my work. The goal is for you to come inside this space and to talk to me…art is the one thing that’s supposed to be accessible.” In the opinion of this writer, the captivating visual approach taken by Mirzoyan is an outgrowth of her background in classical art. At the same time the lack of nihilistic, Dadaistic imagery and themes sometimes found in art film and the replacement of these with (sometimes uncomfortable) “real” issues and ideas, is a reflection of Mirzoyan’s harsh real-life experiences. When you spend your childhood as a refugee fleeing a war zone, you don’t have the luxury and the privilege to say that art and life is meaningless, as the Dadaists did.

Perhaps her most accessible and successful film so far has been “140 Drams,” which is told through the eyes of a young boy in Armenia from a struggling family, whose mother gives him 140 drams to buy milk. When the money isn’t enough, the boy must decide what to do. The short and touching film has moved many viewers around the world and become Mirzoyan’s most popular work thus far.

Mirzoyan says: “’140’ came from my work with COAF when I was teaching a 6-month photography workshop. I worked with children. Each got a camera and the goal was to help them open up their critical thinking skills through photography. We would have so many discussions about what they were capturing and it helped me understand how children in Armenian were perceiving their reality. I wanted to tell a story that was true to it.”

When asked how the Karabakh conflict has shaped her work, Mirzoyan replies: “This conflict, it’s shaped my whole perspective of reality. I don’t know how to distinguish it from anything that I do, or who I am, because it is my perception of reality” She added, “This is why I want to bring peace around it.”

Bringing peace, catharsis, and closure to the events of her childhood, is the impetus behind her current project, Abysm. But it’s also intended for everyone who has experienced grief, loss, or any traumatic experience. “I want to bring catharsis; I think we’ve all experienced these things, maybe not everyone with war like I have, but all of us carry trauma, and I want to give people some kind of relief… I love cinema because I am tapping into our emotional nature. And human emotion hasn’t changed throughout history… emotions don’t have borders which divide us. It’s a way of tapping into the universal.”

I asked Mirzoyan to give some more details on her current work. “’Abysm’ is my first feature, it’s a narrative film. It’s about how we put the past to rest. I’m asking myself, how do we break the cycle of war? What is the masculine side of war, what is the feminine side? I’m also greatly exploring the 40 days of Armenian mourning tradition. The project is based on the Classical Greek story of Antigone, the narrative follows a set of twins — brother and sister — caught up in the Karabakh conflict. The brother dies in battle and his body is left across enemy lines. The sister goes on a quest to get her brother’s body back and perform his last burial rituals.

“The first image came to me when I visited the front line and sat with the soldiers. That’s how it happens. First, I explore. When I indulge my curiosity for life, and I’m deeply absorbed in a place, a single image comes. It’s so clear in my mind, and so true. It cannot be denied and it must come out. The narrative follows.” Mirzoyan says. “And it’s been a very long process. The writing process, it’s won some international awards for its development in Switzerland, which was really quite exciting, from the Locarno Film Festival.”

“But for so long I just wasn’t ready to let go of the past. I kept delaying the project. But now, with everything that’s happened over the last few months in Artsakh, it’s time. It’s time to tell the truth of my experience. And I hope in revealing what I’ve seen, and what I know to be true, I claim my humanity in a history of war we all share.”

To see a bit of her films, visit:

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